When it comes to getting married in Israel, you don’t have much of a choice: If you’re Jewish, it’s the Chief Rabbinate’s way or the highway. The Chief Rabbinate is recognized by law as the supreme rabbinic authority in Israel, and therefore if you want a Jewish—as well as legal—wedding, you have no other option.
This has many implications. First, since the Rabbinate is Orthodox, no Reform or Conservative rabbi may legally officiate at a wedding in Israel. Interfaith marriages can’t be performed, either. And since the Rabbinate has the right to decide who is considered Jewish and who is not, many people who consider themselves Jewish cannot get legally married in Israel. For instance, out of the hundreds of thousands of people who came to Israel from Russia, many of them aren’t considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate, and so they can’t get married.
There are a few ways to go around this; all have major drawbacks. A couple can either travel abroad, get married there, and return and get registered at the Ministry of Interior, which means they are married by Israeli law but unmarried by Jewish law. They can have a Jewish wedding outside the Chief Rabbinate, but the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on Jewish weddings prevents them from being able to register their wedding legally—meaning they are married by Jewish law (according to some) but unmarried by Israeli law. (In this case, the couple, as well as the rabbi who ordained their wedding, can be charged with a criminal offense and be jailed for up to two years.) A third solution would be a common-law marriage, but the word “marriage” is part of the deal only in English; in Hebrew, it’s called yeduim betsibur, which literally means “known in public,” and isn’t really a “marriage” at all, just a legal commitment between partners.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz from Jerusalem is deeply angered by this. Therefore, in 2012 he established the nonprofit organization Hashgacha Pratit (meaning “private providence”), an independent rabbinic-halachic organization that challenges the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel through the provision of private religious services. First, Hashgacha Pratit led the struggle to open the kosher food market in Israel to competition. For more than five years, it provided an alternative kosher supervision without actually using the word “kosher,” which would have made its actions illegal. In March 2018, its kashrut division moved to Tzohar Food Supervision, and Hashgacha Pratit branched out to focus on weddings independent of the Chief Rabbinate. Its wedding organization is called Chuppot and its aim is to provide wedding ceremonies for couples who are interested in a wedding in accordance with Jewish law, yet are forced to get married without the authorization of the Chief Rabbinate—or choose to do so. After getting married through Chuppot, some of the couples then get married abroad, too, in order to register as married in Israel. Others find it sufficient getting married halachically by Chuppot and living together as yeduim betsibur, from a legal point of view.
Chuppot isn’t the first organization to offer Jewish marriages outside of the Chief Rabbinate, but it is the first to offer Orthodox Jewish marriages. Moreover, while most Jewish weddings performed outside of the Chief Rabbinate so far have been performed under the radar because of the threat of criminal prosecution, Chuppot thrives on visibility, as its main goal is to abolish the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over weddings and Jewish religious services in Israel.
“The Chief Rabbinate, under the guise of being the caretaker of Judaism in Israel, actually represent political interests of the Haredi sector and promote an agenda which is extremist in terms of the halacha,” Leibowitz told me when we met for breakfast recently in Tel Aviv. “We are the first organization to say, let’s take the fight out of the court and out of the Knesset and let’s take it to the community by simply providing alternatives.”
“Our first and primary goal is to cancel the law that makes it criminal to get married according to your conscience,” he said. “That for us is the part which is unconscionable. How is it that Israel is the one modern state in the world where a Jew can’t get married according to their conscience?”
Chuppot was launched last June and thus far has performed around 90 weddings. One of the problems it faces is the legality of the ceremonies. Marriages in Israel can be performed only under the auspices of the couple’s religious community. The Israeli Interior Ministry registers marriages on presentation of documentation from the religious authorities, and in the case of Jews, this means the Chief Rabbinate. The law says that if you’re married halachically and you didn’t register at the Ministry of Interior, then the rabbi and the couple are liable for two years in prison.
“It’s a very, very slim chance,” said Leibowitz. “And it’s only for a very small percentage of the people who have weddings with us: only the ones who could have gotten married through the Chief Rabbinate. Because if you can’t get married through the Rabbinate, then you couldn’t register so they can’t prosecute you for not registering.”
In addition to this, there is also another loophole. It takes a few moments to wrap your head around it, but essentially, as long as the wedding is not considered halachic by the Rabbinate’s extreme standards, it is not illegal. So Chuppot adds a few touches to its wedding ceremonies that the Rabbinate would frown upon, like Orthodox women as officiating rabbis or a Jewish prenuptial agreement that the couples are required to sign.
Leibowitz assured me that nobody ever actually went to jail in Israel for having or ordaining a Jewish wedding outside of the Rabbinate: “No, never. We would be very surprised if they would try and take someone to jail for it. It’s a deterrent. The law was designed to intimidate couples and rabbis from doing halachic chuppot outside of the Chief Rabbinate. Our activism is about breaking that mental and social barrier and the fear that people have.”
The place where Leibowitz believes this change will begin is in the modern Orthodox (or dati leumi) community: “When the dati leumi community will start to legitimize halachic chuppot outside the Chief Rabbinate, that’s when the Knesset and the Supreme Court will say: This is not the Chief Rabbinate speaking for tradition or for Judaism, this is the Chief Rabbinate speaking for the Haredi population. It will change the way the Knesset and the courts look at the issue.”
But what happens if the union doesn’t last and the couple wants to separate? When someone performs a halachic wedding, they have to consider what happens if the couple separates and doesn’t get a Jewish divorce document, or get. In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate holds exclusive jurisdiction over this matter. “We don’t provide a get, but work with the couples and with organizations that know how to arrange for a get,” Leibowitz assured me.
Chuppot provides its couples with a vast amount of paperwork and legal documents ensuring that if they separate, they will indeed arrange for a get, and to protect women from get refusal, since by Jewish law a couple cannot divorce without the husband’s consent. They sign a Jewish prenuptial agreement that says that if one side wants a get and the other one refuses, the side that refuses will pay a monthly fine until they agree.
“The halacha is very patriarchal and discriminatory toward women because it was written in another time in which women had a different social standing,” Leibowitz told me. “The halacha said that a man can never be forced to give a get, only if he wants to. The Chief Rabbinate take a very strict interpretation of that and they say that these prenups constitute coercion on the husband. We not only permit it—we require it. We will not perform a wedding in which the woman is not protected from get refusal. We view that as unethical.”
Leibowitz said Chuppot has worked with lawyers and Torah scholars to make sure the weddings it performs meet high standards: “Before us, people did perform Jewish weddings in Israel outside of the Chief Rabbinate, but not responsibly. This is the power of our activism: Not only are we providing an alternative, but we’re providing a product which is notably better and doesn’t make any compromises in Orthodox halacha.”
That means that Chuppot won’t serve same-sex couples. “I’m a big supporter of the gay community,” said Leibowitz, “but as an Orthodox rabbi I will not perform a wedding for a gay couple, and my organization will not. When we get phone calls from gay couples, we refer them to the Conservative movement or the Reform movement or to other organizations that are there to provide them with this service. These movements are not committed to halacha so there a gay couple can have a traditional Jewish wedding.”
Binny and Rachel Zupnick are American expats living in Israel who got married last August through Chuppot. They both grew up in the states as modern Orthodox. “Ideologically, I don’t appreciate the Chief Rabbinate and I didn’t want anything to do with them,” Rachel told me. “I didn’t want them to check if I went to the mikveh and what mikveh I went to, I didn’t want to go to kallah [bride] classes through them. I didn’t want them to be part of my wedding.”
Many times the main obstacles to getting married outside of the Rabbinate are the bride and groom’s parents. “They were really good about it,” Rachel said. “For them it was much more important that the wedding would be Orthodox.”
Their parents were worried about the wedding’s legality, since Binny told them that he and Rachel don’t plan to register as married in Israel: “They have asked what it means, and we told them that the Chief Rabbinate has been doing this for 70 years but Jews have been marrying each other for 2,000 halachically,” he said. “They very quickly understood that this is a real Orthodox marriage and they’re happy that we’re planning to get legally married in the states. They’re a little suspect of what the ramifications will be of not getting registered as married in Israel, but they trust us.”
Binny said he and Rachel never seriously considered getting married through the Chief Rabbinate. “I’m politically active in [the left-wing political party] Meretz, and it would feel hypocritical rallying to get rid of the Rabbinate and to get married through them,” he said. “I was brought up in the states, where we are extremely proud of the fact that there is a separation of religion and state. For me it’s hard that in Israel there is no separation.”
Getting the Chief Rabbinate to comment on Chuppot’s activity wasn’t easy. In the end, their only comment on the matter was: “Marriage is one of the most sacred institutions of the Jewish faith. The secret of the Jewish people’s survival in the Diaspora is the meticulousness and strictness of marriage according to the halacha. That is the reason why the law states that weddings in Israel can only be performed according to the halacha.” It is clear what this implies: that what Chuppot is doing is not according to halacha. From the Rabbinate’s point of view, this delegitimizes the ceremonies, but it actually gives them legal protection.
Leibowitz concluded: “One of the big motivators for myself and other Orthodox rabbis who are fighting the Chief Rabbinate is the bad reputation they give Judaism. I, for one, have a pluralistic world view. I feel there is a certain social capital of trust that’s being lost and the Chief Rabbinate is to blame. When you have a fundamentalist perspective, then everything you do is about forcing your point of view on other people.”
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Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.